On the day after his brutal electoral shellacking, Barack Obama publicly offered to cut the ice in his glacial relationship with soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by sharing a tumbler or two of some fine Kentucky bourbon. The next day, he took a much more significant step involving another Bluegrass State icon: hiring a Kentucky political legend who for decades has crossed the aisles to build bridges—literally—with the president’s chief antagonist.
And this appointment could perhaps prove to be a small step toward bipartisan problem-solving in our polarized and paralyzed nation’s capital.
Jerry Abramson, Kentucky’s lieutenant governor and formerly Louisville’s longest serving mayor, was named Thursday as the new White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. He’s no stranger to Washington: After volunteering on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, Abramson subsequently attended law school at Georgetown University.
During that latter stint, he’d trudge over weekly to the Capitol Hill office of Kentucky Senator Marlow Cook (R), who generously allowed him the opportunity to use his free WATS line to report home to mom and dad. During those visits, Abramson stoked the embers of a relationship with Cook’s administrative assistant, a young lawyer named Mitch McConnell. (Ironically, Abramson at the same time developed a friendship with another young Cook aide, John Yarmuth, now a liberal Democratic congressman who prides himself as McConnell’s leading in-state adversary.)
Alas, there will be no buddy movie to capture the Abramson/McConnell rapport. Personality-wise, the two native Louisvillians are polar opposites: The former “Mayor for Life” is a dynamic extrovert, with Clintonian interpersonal skills and a booming, enthusiastic charisma; while McConnell… well, my sources report that he might have even cracked a tiny smile after his landslide reelection victory on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, from a political perspective, they’ve always been in opposite camps: Indeed, in several cycles, Democrats passionately urged Jerry to run against the senator, and undoubtedly he would have proven a much stronger challenger than any of Mitch’s eventual opponents.
Despite any partisan enmities, the two top politicos maintained a cordial relationship. Abramson says that he and his wife have run into the McConnells too many times to recount, most memorably at neighborhood grocery stores, and often share friendly bonhomies about family, life outside of the spotlight, and their mutual passion for University of Louisville sports.
Much more significantly, while Abramson served as mayor during McConnell’s tenure as U.S. senator, to quote the president’s new mantra, they got stuff done, together. During the two decades the two overlapped in office, Louisville’s infrastructure was dramatically improved, the leading example involving a multibillion-dollar project to build new bridges to span the Ohio River. While Abramson provided the public leadership and worked with state officials to secure the essential political, regulatory, and financial support, McConnell help earmark necessary federal dollars to complete the initiative.
The two men’s most publicized alliance involved an effort critical to Louisville’s economic growth and development into a leading national urban center—the merger of city and county government. In the last half of the 20th century, Jefferson County was plagued by redundant bureaucracies and elected official infighting that was inherent to a political system in which dozens of small city fiefdoms imposed their territorial will. For decades, the city’s civic and business community leaders fought to establish a merged city/county political infrastructure to enable efficient, transparent, and workable government.
But with small town officials fighting fiercely for continued control of their political and financial turf, voter referendums over four decades soundly rejected the proposed consolidation.
That is until 2000. Abramson, who at the time was on the political sidelines having been term-limited, joined forces with McConnell to co-chair efforts to pass merged government. McConnell appealed to the Republican minority that was naturally hostile to bigger government; Abramson pleaded with his political base, which gleefully understood that they could send him back into power in a new, consolidated mayoral office. And by a 54 to 46 percent margin, the merger measure passed, propelling Louisville’s status to one of the largest 18 cities in the nation.
Of course, Abramson told The Daily Beast that “liaison to the Senate Majority Leader” is not in his new job description: He will be focusing on working with governors, mayors, tribal leaders, and other local officials on efforts to improve infrastructure, promote affordable housing, and secure better health-care opportunities.
“I’m extremely excited because I feel my 35 years of public service in local and state government give me a leg up in efforts to implement the administration’s agenda at the grassroots,” Abramson said. “Our state and local governments are the laboratories of our democracy, and I can’t wait to bring my energies to bring change to our nation’s communities.”
The timing of Abramson’s hiring, however, as well as his new proximity in the West Wing, imply that Obama might at least be a little curious about the former Louisville mayor’s advice on dealing with his prominent adversary.
More significantly, Abramson’s appointment could prove to be an important signal toward Obama finally fulfilling his post-partisan promise in his last two years. Lyndon Johnson famously complained that none of John Kennedy’s “best and brightest” advisers had ever run for sheriff—that the country’s top intellectuals did not understand the lives of ordinary Americans, nor had they ever had the training provided by the hand-to-hand combat of local politics. Some critics have made the same sorts of arguments about the remote and effete president.
Indeed, one of those critics had some very positive things to say about the Abramson appointment: “This is a great honor for Jerry, who I have known for many years,” Mitch McConnell told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “We have worked together on important issues impacting the commonwealth, and it is always good to have a Kentuckian in the White House. I wish Jerry well in his new role.”
Is this a signal of détente from a man who has finally reached his dream job and may be looking to a familiar working partner to help burnish his political legacy? Perhaps.
But regardless of McConnell’s next steps, with Jerry Abramson, Obama has found himself someone who understands that policy progress most often results from non-ideological, bipartisan problem-solvers shedding their labels, rolling up their sleeves, and taking action on the issues that desperately need our attention. He’s also found himself an ally with longstanding intelligence about the enemy, and an even deeper understanding that when we stop viewing the other side as the enemy—and work together on the common good—great things can happen.
In Jerry Abramson, a new sheriff is in town. Let’s hope the president uses him wisely.